Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

In one sense indeed men may be said to believe that

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Unformatted text preview: thing. They saw that none of the objects of sense has any power or activity included in it, from which they inferred that the same holds for the bodies which they thought to exist outside the mind. Yet they went on believing in such bodies! That is, they believed in a vast multitude of created things that were admittedly incapable of producing any effects in nature, so that there was no point in God’s creating them since He could have done everything just as well without them. Even if this were possible, it would still be a very puzzling and extravagant supposition. 54. In the eighth place, some may think that matter, or the existence of external things, is shown by the fact that all mankind believe in it. Must we suppose the whole world to be mistaken? - ·the objection runs· - and if so, how can we explain such a wide-spread and predominant error? I answer, first, that Ÿwhen we look into it carefully we may find that the existence of matter or of things outside the mind is not really believed in by as many people as the objector imagines. Strictly speaking, it is impossible to believe something 26 that involves a contradiction, or has no meaning in it; and I invite you to consider impartially whether ‘matter’ and ‘things outside the mind’ are not of that sort. In one sense indeed, men may be said to ‘believe that matter exists’: that is, they act as if the immediate cause of their sensations, which affects them every moment and is so nearly present to them, were some unsensing and unthinking being. But that they should clearly have any meaning for those words, and make out of them a settled theoretical opinion, is what I cannot conceive. This is not the only case where men deceive themselves by imagining they believe propositions that they have often heard but basically have no meaning in them. 55. But in any case (and this is my second reply), Ÿeven if some proposition is firmly believed by nearly everyone, that is a weak argument for its truth to anyone who considers what a vast number of prejudices and false opinions are everywhere accepted with the utmost tenacity by unreflecting people - who make up the great majority of them. There was a time when even learned men regarded as monstrous absurdities the view that there are there are lands on the opposite side of the globe, and the view that the earth moves; and when we consider what a small proportion of mankind they are, we can expect that even now those notions are not widely accepted in the world. 56. But I am challenged to explain this prejudice ·that there is matter outside the mind·, and to account for its popularity. I now do so. Men became aware that they perceived various ideas of which they themselves were not the authors, because these ideas were not caused from within, and didn’t depend on the operation of their wills. This led them to think that those ideas or objects of perception had an existence independent of the mind and outside it; and it never entered their heads that a contradiction was involved in those words. But philosophers plainly saw that the immediate objects of perception do not exist outside the mind, and this led them to correct, up to a point, the mistake of the common man. In doing this, though, they ran into another mistake that seems equally absurd, namely: that certain objects really exist outside the mind, having an existence distinct from being perceived, and our ideas are only images or resemblances of these objects, imprinted by the objects on the mind. And this view of the philosophers has the same source as the common man’s mistake: they realized that they were not the authors of their own sensations, which they clearly knew were imprinted from outside and must therefore have some cause distinct from the minds on which they were imprinted. 57. Why did they suppose that the ideas of sense are caused in us by things that they resemble, rather than attributing them to ·the causal action of· spirit, which is the only kind of thing that can act? ·There are three parts to the explanation·. First, the philosophers were not aware of the inconsistency of Ÿthe supposition of things like our ideas existing outside minds, and of Ÿthe attribution to such supposed things of power or activity. Second, the supreme spirit that causes those ideas in our minds is not presented to us by any particular finite collection of perceptible ideas, in the way that human agents are marked out by their size, skin-colour, limbs, and motions. Third, the supreme spirit’s operations are regular and uniform. Whenever the course of nature is interrupted by a miracle, men are ready to admit that a superior being is at work; but when we see the course of events continue in the ordinary way, we are not prompted to reflect on this. 27 Although the order and interlinking of events is evidence for the greatest wisdom, power, and goodness in their creator, it is so constant and familiar to us that we don’t think of the events as the immediate effects of a free spirit - especially since inconstancy and changeability in acting, though really an imperfection, is looked on as a sign of freedom. 58. Tenthly, this will be objected: The views you advance are inconsistent with various sound truths in science and mathematics. For example, the motion of the earth is now universally accepted by astronomers as a truth grounded in the c...
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